9.27.2005

Am I a Christian? Yes, no or maybe?

My monthly meeting recently held a second hour discussion on “What is your relationship to Christianity?” The topic was originally proposed as “Are you a Christian? Yes, no, or maybe?” But that was determined to be too off-putting to too many people, especially those who might wish to answer no. In preparation, Friends were referred to the section of PYM’s book of Faith & Practice on Friends relationship to Christianity. (pp 18-20) My impression is that most of the answers were in the maybe category. A lot could have been phrased “yes, but …” or “no, but …”. There really isn’t anyone in our Meeting right now that is either violently allergic to Christian language and concepts or blindly Christocentric.

As for me, the words that might best describe my relationship to Christianity right now are embarrassed and sullen. Although a good friend laughed when she heard me say that.

I grew up in a mildly Presbyterian/Methodist and devotedly Masonic home. I pretty much moved into the “belief in God but not organized religion” phase as a teenager. In my college years (but not while I was actually at school), I had a profoundly mystical experience that left me groping in the dark for a way to respond to God speaking to me. What little I had learned about prayer in Sunday School or my Catholic university was not adequate. I was clear that God was talking to me, but not about Jesus or in the voice of Jesus or Christ or anyone personal. I may have been just a little bit cocky about this.

Fast forward over the next eight years or so: I took more classes in the theology department, on the Bible and social justice, religion and the feminine, mysticism. Found Quakers by a series of unlikely coincidences. Suddenly found myself able to rise before noon every Sunday. Met a fine young man, courted and married him in the same meetinghouse. Irregular but often enough minor mystical experiences in meeting and elsewhere.

I finally started taking Quakerism more seriously about five years ago. A few things that have been influential:

A number of Friends in my Meeting have set a good example, and made a lot of progress in this direction. Reading more early Friends. Stretching their understanding of the Bible. Experimenting with plainness. Giving up economic activities for more devotion to their religious activities.

Together with my family, I started going regularly to Yearly and Quarterly Meeting sessions.

In A Quaker Vision of Gospel Order, Lloyd Lee Wilson wrote that Friends will have to name the Giver of spiritual gifts.

On Friday, September 14, 2001, I went to a noontime mass celebrated by my boss, Fr. Louie Vitale, OFM. Even as the whole country rose up to shake a stick at Al Qaeda, I was reminded that the true message of Jesus was of peace, of forgiveness, of inclusion. First time I ever felt truly worshipful in a programmed worship gathering.

Quaker blogs, Liz Opp, Martin Kelley and especially Rich Accetta-Evans, have helped me understand that it was okay to make this journey – to be glad that Quakers were willing to have me from where I started, not expecting that Quakerism would change to come to me, but that I would grow to come to Quakerism.

Marcus Borg and his book, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, has helped me see that I could fit in institutionally and intellectually to be a Christian. Emergent church blogs are reinforcing that idea.

Ok. This is the hard part. In June of this year, I went to the meeting for worship on the last day of classes for my son’s school. Because the school’s temporary quarters didn’t have a big enough space for everyone, the meeting was held in the sanctuary of the Roman Catholic church across the street. (If meeting for worship can be held anywhere, why not a relatively plain and very inclusive Catholic church?) On this particular day, I was really distraught about something [irrelevant to this story] that had happened at the school, and I was trying to hold myself and the school board and a variety of others in the Light. [Here I sigh, swallow, look down at my feet, and back up to look you in the eye.] I saw, I experienced Jesus come down out of the big stained glass window across from me to put his arms around me and comfort me. I don’t want to say this. I think this is a cliché, and I am really embarrassed by the admission. I am really resisting what this might mean for me. But it is indescribably true.

For example, I am usually an enthusiastic person about anything new, and I do not want to be an enthusiastic Christian. How humiliating. I don’t want to be like the Christians I hear about in the news, in our government. Heaven forbid. So I am really resisting this leading. I feel like a sullen child that knows what I should be doing, I know what would be good for me, but I don’t want to. Why would I be so much more embarrassed to say I were a Christian than I ever would be to say I were not? I am so NOT like Paul who said “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” (Romans 1:16)

However, Borg and Father Louie and Father Joseph Wresinski and Elaine Pagels and John Dominic Crossan have all helped me to understand the teachings of Jesus in a way that resonates and makes sense. Lloyd Lee Wilson and Krista Barnard and Gregg Koskela and AJ Schwanz have helped me to see that I don’t have to be one of THOSE (literalist, Bible-thumping, G.W.B.) kind of Christians. But I know I could be, maybe I want to be a Quaker Christian.

I could be a Quaker Christian. It’s not easy, but it’s not absurd either.

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20 Comments:

Blogger Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

For me, it's particular strains of Christianity that drive me nuts. The ones that are literalistic about the Bible, the ones that make Christianity an undergirding of patriarchy, or the ones that are all about having your past wiped out if you say a sinner's prayer, and not if you don't.

But I refuse to believe that any of those things is what Christianity is really about.

9/27/2005 10:49 AM  
Blogger Rob said...

Robin,

It was very brave of you to share this experience, and I want to thank you. I sometimes grow quite shy when I start talking (or writing) about religious experiences because I don't want others (or myself) to think I've become some sort of nutter. We can talk about God in the intellectual sense, and there seems to be no end to Quakers' penchant for institutional self-examination and critique, but so rarely do we really share those moments when we're quite literally touched by God.

And all this time I thought you were in Northwest Yearly Meeting. Oh, how I get the two confused! Do you know Kathy H.? She worked with the YM's youth program. Great friend from WGYF.

9/27/2005 11:00 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Robin, this is an important topic. Thanks for raising it.

Last night I was at the first part of a meeting of a new GLBTQ & Allies group in Minnesota, the Faith Family Fairness Alliance. I sat near a woman who told me that she was at a recent rally supporting same-sex marriage and wore a sign that said, "I'm a Christian." She said that two reporters came up to her to interview her because of the sign she wore.

When I left the meeting, I asked myself if I could wear such a sign.

I don't think I could, because the popular connotation of the word "Christian" excludes my own understanding and belief in the existence of The Christ.

I felt sad, then, in part because what sort of phrase could I wear that would catch people's attention, make 'em think, and engage us in conversation, without being so in your face about it all?

The one that came to mind, but is not so clearly Christian, is

God loves love

--a phrase I came across in a book by Elizabeth Andrew.

Still, if we Quakers-who-believe-in-the-Christ are going to be part of the movement to reclaim the earlier, "primitive" use of the word, we will need to wear our Christ-in-humanity on our sleeve...

Blessings,
Liz, The Good Raised Up

9/27/2005 2:38 PM  
Blogger Gregg Koskela said...

Robin, I'm so glad you shared your experiences so openly. I was moved to imagine your experience with the stained glass window. Isn't it like God to speak through things that we wish God wouldn't? And, as someone for whom Jesus means everything, isn't it just like Jesus to embrace you? Thanks.

9/27/2005 5:13 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Lynn, yes, yes, yes.

Rob, I was also a bit shy about writing this. [Did I mention that I am still embarrassed? Did I hide the main point of the whole post deep enough?] Chris M. was reassuring me last night that it wouldn't be too odd, everything was going to be all right. My toes still curl just thinking about writing it.
No, I don't think I know Kathy H, but I will check with Chris, hmmm.

Liz, your post on your Friendly journey with Christ was quite an inspiration to me. I go back and forth on whether the definition of Christian could include me. Marcus Borg has been an enormous help.

Gregg, I just want to invite you over, put all the kids to bed and ask you to tell me more about how and why "Jesus means everything" to you.

Thank you everyone for gentle and accepting responses in this tender moment for me.

9/28/2005 12:10 AM  
Blogger Joe G. said...

Here I am at the university and tapping away at my computer in the little nook and cranny that I call an office space, and then I read this.

These are tender and vulnerable, but profoundly spiritual thoughts. This is the sort of thing I think we could have read in an old Friend's journal as she described her experience with the living Presence in her life.

I'm busy recording podcasts gushing over a band that I love, and then I see what you have to offer us.

By the way, I love the fact that this followed a post on Lemon Merrangue Pie. Great combo!

I agree with Gregg:
Isn't it like God to speak through things that we wish God wouldn't? ...isn't it just like Jesus to embrace you?

I'm realizing, after reading your blog and how you and Liz (hello, Liz!) have dealt with this "issue" of Jesus and thee, is how closed off we can be in the unprogrammed tradition. Are we at least open to experiencing God as understood and demonstrated by Jesus. We may not necessarily come to the same exact conclusions, but are we at least open to the idea and experience?

Wait, I feel a blog post coming on...

Thanks, Friend!

9/28/2005 10:58 AM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Hey Robin: wow, what a wonderful gift! I'm laughing with joy: yes, sometimes Christ does just come right out and give you a hug. I've experienced it. It doesn't happen all the time but just enough to let me know I'm okay (I think of . I don't think the Spirit is asking us to be one of those types of Christians. If you look back to the time of Fox and Fell and Penn, etc., there were lots of those types of Christians running around then too. I think Jesus knew his message would be distorted. The real message is so simple and so easy--and I don't think it even requires beating anyone over the head with words like "Christ." The message is real because its true and however you live it will be testament to our Lord and Creator. Thanks for sharing your experience so openly with us, I think we liberal Friends need to get into this practice more often.
Your Friend, Martin

9/28/2005 6:02 PM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Robin, I'm glad you are feeling embraced by our warmth and love. I also understand the "curl the toes" feeling, given the sense of feeling vulnerable.

It sounds like you were faithful. It sounds like you yielded...

Blessings,
Liz, The Good Raised Up

9/28/2005 10:28 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Joe, hi Martin. Thanks. I look forward to reading more of your experiences with the living presence of God.

Actually, Liz, I'm not sure I have been faithful yet. I am not yielding to the full implications of this experience. I am still resisting.

But the first step is to begin to tell people about it. I did, at my Meeting's afternoon discussion, and again here. But now, buoyed up by the loving response here, I need to go back to my Meeting. I have to seek out the people in my day to day life with whom I will process this experience. I know who they are, at least some of them, at least enough to begin with. This may be my gift to the Meeting - here is my religious experience. I have to ask for help. I have to offer my Meeting the opportunity to help me.

I don't mean that I will not blog about this process, but it has to happen in my Monthly Meeting in order to happen in my daily life.

9/29/2005 1:21 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

Robin, in your recent comment you wrote, I'm not sure I have been faithful yet. I am not yielding to the full implications of this experience. I am still resisting.

When I wrote that it sounds as if you were faithful; as if you yielded, what I meant was that you allowed yourself to be tender enough to share such a vulnerable experience; that you yielded at the time to allow yourself to feel the embrace of Jesus-from-the-window.

You are right, though: One moment of faithfulness does not mean we are done in being faithful. One moment of having yielded to the leading and the love of the Spirit doesn't mean we are done with resistance forevermore.

Blessings,
Liz, The Good Raised Up

9/29/2005 5:47 PM  
Blogger Johan Maurer said...

I'm one of your readers who feels honored to be allowed this glimpse of your experience.

Thank you for giving your experience to this caring community (your readers); we won't push you into overinterpreting, just as you're not pushing yourself that way.

It's now been 31 years since I had an equivalent experience (mine happened as I read the words "love your enemies") and I've still not fully absorbed the implications. It is hard for me to assess how I've changed, but I know that then I was not in a community and now I am.

John Punshon said in one of his books that when he became a Christian he blew 20 years of liberal cool, or words to that effect. I know another British Friend who is trembling on the edge of getting to know Jesus better but worried about the cost to their public reputation. In the meantime, the reality is so much bigger (but also so much quieter) than these concerns might suggest.

There's a slight relationship between the words I wrote this evening in my own blog and at least this public dimension of your entry. Funny ... I wrote my entry before reading yours.

9/30/2005 1:06 AM  
Anonymous kathy said...

Hi Robin, Your story is amazing. Unique. Universal. Powerful. Valuable. Beautiful.

You'll never be one of those Christians precisely BECAUSE Christ embraced you! You'll be in relationship with Him, not the nut cases in the news. They embarrass us all. Seeking after His heart will lead you toward Love, not away from it.

Welcome to the expedition from someone in Oregon Quakerdom who loves Christ unreservedly; from someone who makes the effort every day to live surrendered to Him (any success is His doing not mine); from someone who now knows that life without Him would be an unimaginably horrible thing; and from someone who took the long way around getting here. Blessings on this new stage in your journey.

10/01/2005 12:37 AM  
Blogger Aj Schwanz said...

Friend!

What a blessing to read this post, this bearing-of-your-heart to folks, in ways that you're not even comfortable with. I completely resonate: today I blubbered through giving a piece of my testimony to many folks I don't know (a friend told me that my emotions are part of me and I shouldn't negate them, but I blame it that I'm on pain pills :) ) - I certainly didn't want to be the person crying while sharing my compassion for others who don't know the love and light of Christ, but that seemed to be in the cards. And I would say you're very like Paul - he was very anti-Christ until God zapped him - I don't think he really wanted to be pro-Christ before that: it'd be like Dubbya promoting hybrid cars (what, no Texas oil sucking mobiles?!!)

I think in today's society it's not so much Christianity that we see, but rather Churchianity: people must come to the building and behave in this certain church culture. But it's false - and everyone knows it (whether they'll accept it is another story).

Christ comes and embraces us (literally for some - you lucky girl!) in places we don't expect, in places we don't anticipate or feel deserved. But he does it because he loves us. It can't be explained, and it shouldn't: some things are sacred like that. But they can be shared - and you did - thank you, friend.

If you invite Gregg over, can I come , too? :) :)

10/02/2005 10:31 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Oh thank you all for these many blessings/comments.

Aj,

I want to just defend myself that I am still not like Paul - I was not actively tormenting the followers of Jesus before I stepped on to the road to Damascus. :)

And honey, you are SO invited to my house, whether Gregg can make it or not.

10/04/2005 4:09 PM  
Blogger Sarah said...

Mm, I struggle with a lot of the same problems . . . half of me thinks I'm a Christian. The other half says I'm not. Then part of me just hates the label and everything that goes with it . . . but I really liked this post. And the phrasing of the question!

10/04/2005 10:34 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Hi Sarah! I clicked over to look at your blog, and there, lo and behold, I found your post on why you'd say you're not a Christian, or at least why some would say so, even if others might disagree.

A fascinating conversation topic, if I do say so myself.

10/05/2005 12:18 AM  
Blogger Paul L said...

The most important reason I claim the title Christian for myself is to prevent it's misappropriation by those who use the label to sanctify unjust wars, justify the dehumanization or marginalization of whole classes of people, or rationalize the rape of the Earth.

I don't see why I must change my family name just because some of my relatives disgrace it by renting (and so cheaply!) it to gimcrack politicians, sunshine patriots, and hate-peddlers.

I was born (and baptized, with water and Spirit) into the Christian family, and the name was given to me by my spiritual Fathers and Mothers who suffered and died in order to protect it from such degredations. I feel as if I owe it to them to live in such as way as to either convert or expose the imposters who have hijacked our family's good name for evil purposes.

Of course, that requires me to treat them as errant relatives and not enemies, and that ain't easy. But I'm not ready to give up my birthright without a fight.

10/05/2005 5:56 PM  
Blogger Johan Maurer said...

Paul's post above reminds me of Anne Lamott's delightful and painful chapter on loving George W. Bush in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

10/06/2005 4:27 AM  
Blogger Liz Opp said...

I love what Paul L. has to say:

The most important reason I claim the title Christian for myself is to prevent its misappropriation... I don't see why I must change my family name just because some of my relatives disgrace it... Of course, that requires me to treat them as errant relatives and not enemies, and that ain't easy....

Thanks, Robin, for opening the door to this great exchange!

Blessings,
Liz, The Good Raised Up

10/06/2005 6:33 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

I am just deeply moved that this has been such a fruitful topic.

10/07/2005 1:40 AM  

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